"Historical Fencing and other HEMAenities" or "On how to Understand what we are Doing
Updated: Jul 25
Approaching the Art
The first time I had the idea of wielding a sword I was just a thirteen years old boy. I was in love with fantasy literature, which had already been in my life for a few years, but I had never thought of actually wielding a sword to emulate my heroes before. The causes of that idea were several simultaneous events.
As most of the things I presently do in my life, I was taken into this first by reading Tolkien’s Silmarillion at that time, in a moment when my heart was moving from modern wizards fantasy to the epic origins of the genre. All those Elves, Men, Dwarves and other creatures wielding legendary weapons to fight for good or ill, they they deeply touched me, creating the foundations of my interest for chivalric culture and epic deeds.
Then, as fate decided, almost one year after that, when I had devoured fantasy and King Arthur literature in equal parts, I met a guy who introduced me into fantasy roleplaying.
As a young boy who already loved both knights, quests and fantasy adventures, I was thrilled by the idea of actually playing the role of a character slashing his way through enemies to complete his mission with a group of good fellows. I started playing the most classic RPG with these new friends, and it was amazing. Interpreting an armed guy, describing what I would have done, how I would have parried the blows with my shield, dodged the javelins before they hit me and hewed the enemies with my sword, really made the desire of doing that in the real world grow strong inside myself. At that time I thought that was childish, you know, playing knights… I was a kid no more, I was fourteen...
But then, not long after my fifteenth birthday, a new school friend casually mentioned the fact he was attending historical fencing classes in a newly formed medieval reenactment group in near my city. That really threw me off my feet.
People actually swordfighting and wearing armor in XXI century? I had to be one of them!
So in the first decade of the third millennium happened that a fifteen years old boy named Dario Alberto Magnani, a lover of RPGs who always went by the name Thokk for his characters, was given a rattan stick and told ancient fencing masters had left some manuals behind them, and he was going to be taught their art.
But what art is this?
Well, the short answer, my completely childish and superficial answer, was "it's the knigtly art of swordfighting". I was so young... and yet I wasn't far from truth.
I know some of you might be surprised, and some may even be disappointed, but I’m going to say I do call myself an Historical Fencer, or more correctly a scholar of historical fencing, rather than a HEMA/WMA/whatever practitioner. I’m sorry if this distinction may sound trivial to some of you, but it is extremely relevant for the purpose of this article. Why? You’ll realize that later, but I now need to stop for a second and explain those definitions, starting from a classic: dictionaries.
Please note these definitions for “fencing” and “martial arts” weren’t cherry picked: I will quote the first results coming up when you google for “fencing dictionary” and “martial arts dictionary”. I made this coice for these are the most popular and easiest to find definitions, so should be the most widely accepted.
So, what about martial arts?
“One of the methods of fighting, often without weapons, that come from the Far East, for example kung fu, karate, or judo.”
“Various sports, which originated chiefly in Japan, Korea, and China as forms of self-defence or attack, such as judo, karate, and kendo.”
“Any of the traditional forms of Asian self-defense or combat that utilize physical skill and coordination without weapons, as karate, aikido, judo, or kung fu, often practiced as sport.”
And as HEMA is “Historical European” Martial Arts, we can say it is an umbrella term for “various sports that come from different forms of combat of the past that were originated in Europe” or “Any european method of fighting of the past, used for self-defense and attack, often practiced as a sport”. I voluntarly bypassed the “without weapons” part, because it goes along with the Asian martial arts, but not necessarly with the European ones.
If you instead look up at the modern definition of “fencing”, you’ll find several variations depending on the source:
“The art, practice, or sport in which an épée, foil, or saber is used for defense and attack”
“A sport in which two competitors fight each other using very thin swords. The ends of the swords are covered and the competitors wear protective clothes, so that they do not hurt each other.”
“The sport of fighting with long, thin swords”
Yet this refers to what is called Sports Fencing or Olympic Fencing. This discipline was evolved from actual fencing, or “historical” fencing, inheriting the idea of two contenders willingly fighting each other with weapons for the sake of obtaining victory.
So “historical” fencing (as opposed to “modern” fencing) was “the art or practice in which two opponents both used a specific weapon for attack and defense”.
This is core to the idea of fencing compared to generally “fighting”. Fencing implies opponents confronting their skill and experience with a specific weapon to defeat the other one in what is generally (and mostly incorrectly) called a duel.
If the recognization is missing, so that one of the two isn’t aware of the other’s harmful intentions and is unable to defend, the fight becomes an assault, and as one of the two is defenseless, that isn’t fencing.
If furthermore the outcome of the fight isn’t independent from the situation (example: battle melee), if the combatants aren’t measuring each other’s skill (examples: one is blinded by rage, a trained person is fighting an untrained one, etc) or the fight is unfair (example: different length weapons, or one of the two is armoured), then the more each of these aspects is prominent, the less the fight is to be considered “fencing”.
This all makes fencing something generally happening in formal situations, where some kind of etiquette or accord (varying depending on historical period and place) is to be followed.
So Historical Fencing "WAS the art or practice in which two people fought each other using weapons for defense and attack”. The key word in this definition is “was”.
This means that today's Historical Fencing scholars and students are interested in how did fencers fight in the past, where the fencers of the past are those who practiced the art of fencing, seen as a long tradition that goes from its dark origins in the barbaric Middle Ages to its end when it was dismissed due to the moral concerns that an art which involved violence and wounds raised is the modern wolrd.
In my experience these definitions I came to can describe the mindset of the users incredibly well, and also allow for a neat distinction of the way people approach to this field, so being useful for addressing publicity and promotion for the activity itself. As an example, someone with a sports fighting or olympic fencing backgound might be more thrilled by the idea of using a sword to fight in a competition, which is what is happening in the HEMA community those years, with more and more weight on the tournaments, that attract an increasing number of new practicioners. On the other side, someone more interested in the tradition and historical value of the art itself and its deepest possible knowledge, like myself, might better like the idea of tryng to get closer to what swordsmen (as not many outside of the community know what a poleaxe is, as an example) did in the past, instead of having to play with or against the rules of a competition. Note that one thing does not mutually exclude the other, I AM TALKING ABOUT ATTRACTING NEW PEOPLE BASED ON THEIR BIAS AND BACKGROUND, not discriminating any approach or leaning of experienced people. Obviously those are the two extremes, but these are the categories I divide new people in (and also some of the less-new ones).
A follow-up article will be discussing the idea of Hisorical Fencing as a long unbroken and mutating tradition that has its roots in the early Middle Ages and lasted up to its end at the beginning of the modern era, for those that didn't go well with that definition. And then, probably, one to explain why I don't like the "Martial Arts" definition when talking about HEMA. Yes, people saying "martial" every 3 seconds, I'm looking at you ;)